November 15, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell on how to write hit movies

Gladwell has a looong article in The New Yorker entitled "THE FORMULA: What if you built a machine to predict hit movies?" about some market researchers who claim they can analyze unmade screenplays statistically and tell you how much money they will make, and how to make them more profitable.

While padded with endless human interest material about some not very interesting humans, it's less obviously fallacious than many of his recent efforts. The big problem is, as so often, Gladwell's nice-guy credulity, as he fails to push these researchers to document their claims to accurate prophecy. Having been in the market research business for many years, I can assure you that it's easy to draw up a list of right predictions you've made in the past, as these guys did for Gladwell, but it's a lot harder to predict the future. One of the businessmen says:

With Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion,’ people always say, ‘Who could have predicted that?’ And the answer is, we could have.”

Well, swell. I could have, too. Granted, I didn't, technically speaking, predict that. But I could have.

What Gladwell should have done is tell them, "I'm Malcolm F****** Gladwell, the highest earning magazine journalist in America, and if you want me to write a huge article in the New Yorker about what geniuses you are, then you are going to have to pass my test. Here it is: Pick any ten movies scheduled for release over the next three months, read their shooting scripts, and then write down how much money they will make over their first four weeks of release. If you thoroughly beat the Hollywood Stock Exchange predictions, then I'll write the article. Otherwise, I won't."

It drives Gladwell crazy that I rag on him about how much money makes and how Leonard DiCaprio is signed to play Gladwell in the movie version of Blink. He goes through and deletes my comments on his blog (which he appears to have given up on, not surprisingly after all the embarrassments he has been through involving his blog this year). But, he misses the point, which is that I think it's a good thing that a magazine writer can make so much money, because somebody getting paid that much can afford to do a better job than the typical journalist.

The average business writer can't afford to make a cool-sounding start-up company wait four months to prove their bona fides in a test designed by the writer. Instead, Joe Journalist has to read the press release, make a few phone calls, and churn out some copy. Gladwell, in contrast, can afford to subject his subjects to whatever torture tests he devises. He can say, "I'm Malcolm Gladwell, bitch! Prove it!"

But he doesn't. Unfortunately, Gladwell isn't enough of a jerk to insist that his subjects prove their worth. His problem is that he's not egotistical enough. He's always getting wowed by the overwhelming genius of somebody with a complicated-sounding line of patter. He doesn't do simple reality checks on theories that smart-seeming people tell him because he's just not cynical enough. He really, truly admires all these people he writes about and believes they are all brilliant, even though their theories often contradict each other. (That's why his bestseller Blink made no overall sense whatsoever.)

As Gladwell wrote after breathlessly retailing a couple of economists' dubious explanation of Ireland's recent prosperity and getting shot down by Jane Galt and commenters on his own blog:

"I will confess to having a slightly reverential attitude toward academia. I'm the son of an academic. Much of my writing involves taking academic research and trying to translate it for a more general audience. And I've always believed that if you set out to write about the work of academic specialists, you have a responsibility to treat that work with respect-- to acknowledge your own ignorance and, where appropriate, defer to the greater expertise of others."

No, your job as a journalist is not to defer to the greater expertise of others, but to figure out what the key questions are to ask your subjects so readers can see if they really are the experts they claim to be.

Of course, you apparently can't become Malcolm Gladwell unless you are as big a sucker as Malcolm is. I'm sure PR flacks are inundating the New Yorker office daily with ideas for Gladwell stories because he doesn't have a skeptical bone in his body. And readers like that. Gladwell seems so genuinely confident that somewhere out there is some genius who can tell his readers exactly how to get rich, and that Malcolm will find him for them. And Malcolm's trusting nature is genuine. He believes in his own stories more than even his most devoted fans believe in them.

As for this article, it raises some interesting questions.

The first is the researchers' confidence that the screenplay is by far the key element in the money-making equation. In truth, I think the key to predicting box office is the budget. There's a reasonably high correlation between the overall expenditure and the box office take. Studios aren't stupid about what properties to invest heavily in.

Still, it's hardly unreasonable to to focus on the screenplay. The amount of acting talent that could do a reasonable job with most scripts is enormous these days.

Directors get more publicity than screenwriters, even though the screenplay is probably more essential. A major reason is that the director's job is far harder to do. It's like the difference between a staff general who draws up a battle plan on paper during the long years of peace and the line general who must execute it in the fog of war. Military historians like to praise Gen. Schlieffen, who drew up an elaborate plan for how Germany could win a two front war against France and Imperial Russia, and to denigrate Gen. von Moltke the Lesser, who botched Schlieffen's plan in 1914. Shlieffen, though, worked with relative leisure, while Von Moltke had to make decisions in real time.

Second, the article walks through a close analysis of the original and revised screenplays for "The Interpreter" an indifferently successful 2005 drama about goings-on at the UN starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn and directed by Sydney Pollack. Their advice boils down to, in effect, make it cheesier, more like "The Bodyguard." The marketing researchers' revised plot is exceptionally idiotic.

Since "The Interpreter," while trying to be a smart movie, ended up pretty dumb, that wouldn't have been much of a loss. But, that's not how Hollywood works. While "The Interpreter" was kind of stupid if you knew much of anything about Africa and the UN, it didn't seem stupid to Kidman, Penn, and Pollack (who don't). They wouldn't have made the movie if it was intentionally a lowest common denominator effort. It would have ended up getting made with, say, Josh Lucas and Sienna Miller in the lead roles, and then the studio wouldn't have given it much of a promotional budget because it didn't have big stars attached, and it still wouldn't have made much of a profit.

The scary truth is that Hollywood would make even lousier movies if everybody in town weren't constantly telling each other that they are geniuses who should save themselves for artistic cinema. Putting up with the inflated self-regards of Hollywood artistes is the price we pay for the occasional non-moronic movie.

Third, what you can't systematically predict based on the past is The Next Big Thing. Audiences eventually get bored with what they liked in the past, but you can't tell when. And what you definitely can't tell from your database is what they'll start liking in the future.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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